Dépaysement (nm)—an untranslatable French word that “can mean anything from disorientation to culture shock. The word is formed from the word pays or ‘country’ and would literally mean something like ‘to be uncountried’. Dépaysement is the feeling one gets of not being in one’s own country, of being a foreigner.”
I like this word because it captures the essence of what I’ve experienced many, many times. From the early days when my parents would lug us around as they moved between two cities and changed flats, to the numerous times we switched schools or all those teary-eyed moments when yet another friend would move out of my transient hometown. From each relocation to a new country for work, to every visit I make to my family back home, that all-too-familiar feeling of dépaysement appears. It’s a bittersweet feeling.
Most recently, I was back in my hometown of Hong Kong for a whole month to visit family and friends. I have a rule about visiting home: despite any jetlag, I must wake up at 6:30am the next morning, go to the gym, eat at my usual brunch place, take public transportation, meet a friend for lunch, buy groceries, go to the bank, and essentially do the most mundane errands as I would if I were still living there. The last thing I want to be is a tourist in my own city, so I dive right into my ‘usual’ routine.
But Hong Kong is a unique kind of city in that change happens almost overnight. With the skill and efficiency of the Chinese, plus the acute business acumen (many would say, greed) of property developers, the speed with which land is reclaimed, skyscrapers built, or restaurants opened and closed down, is staggering. I still remember when ferry rides took 20 minutes instead of five. While I love the stunning Hong Kong skyline today, I do wish they’d stop knocking down authentic local neighbourhoods and replacing them with expat-centric luxury flats that nobody on a normal Hong Kong salary could afford. Hong Kong’s beauty lies in the organic mix of old and new. Unfortunately, that’s very quickly changing… disappearing.
Another thing that makes Hong Kong unique is its political situation and the existence of the “one country, two systems” principle where, on paper, it’s an autonomous region with a completely separate administration from China. The reality is arguable, and a lot more complicated. It’s an interesting position to be in for the city—with one foot in the historical world of colonialism and another foot in the throes of a new balance of power with its ‘Big Brother’ nation increasingly flaunting its clout on the global stage.
A quick Google search of recent news will quickly paint a picture of antipathy between Hong Kong and China, and I was quite sad to experience that these weren’t mere headlines. The hostility was palpable on a very basic level—on the streets. As a child of the 80s, I witnessed and lived the stark difference between a Hong Kong that belonged to Britain and a Hong Kong that belonged to China.
All these fast-moving changes amplify the feeling of dépaysement common to those of us who now live abroad and only get to visit home once or twice a year. But you know what, it’s also Hong Kong’s uniqueness that makes it possible to fit right back in. Its incredibly fast pace and the convenience with which I could schedule my day and pack it with activities from workouts to hikes, catch-ups to clubbing, shopping to eating at the dodgiest-looking local haunt, or simply admiring the view, my hometown still has this amazing ability to make me feel like everything is possible. Time is gold and it’s valued so much that you have no time to feel strange or sad.
What’s more, I have an arsenal much stronger than this bittersweet feeling of being “uncountried”—family, friends, and a whole lot of memories. The feeling of dépaysement is annoying, but thankfully, fleeting, thanks to these.
Whatever Hong Kong becomes, I will always love it. The Hong Kong of my memories, how my home city made me felt (alive, optimistic, energetic, positive), I will always carry with me no matter where in the world I eventually find myself in.